TV Martí was supposed to be made for days like Wednesday, December 17. After all, the U.S. government has spent more than a half-billion dollars on Martí over the years, all to beam American news into the heart of Cuba.
Yet when the biggest Cuban-American story in a half-century broke -- Barack Obama and Raúl Castro's announcement that they'd move to normalize diplomatic relations -- the Miami-based network was caught in utter disarray, employees tell New Times, exposing the systemic disorganization and poor leadership that have blighted the network for years.
"What happened... was absolutely incredible," said one longtime Martí employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It just seemed like we were so completely unprepared."
In 1983, the U.S. government started Radio Martí as a propaganda tool designed to stream "accurate, unbiased" news to Cuba to plant seeds of democracy. TV Martí followed in 1990.
Yet the network has more often been considered a symbol of ineffectual Cold War policy and government waste than a serious democratic tool: Despite a budget in the tens of millions, Cuban authorities have easily jammed the signal, with one survey estimating that only one-third of 1 percent of Cubans actually get the channel. The network's governing agency, the Broadcasting Board of Governors (who didn't respond to Riptide's request to comment on this story), has been dogged by claims of special-interest-funding waste and poor management.
Their performance last week isn't likely to change that perception. The news broke early on Wednesday that American prisoner Alan Gross was to be freed in exchange for members of the "Cuban Five" spies. A major policy by President Obama would come at noon.
Yet even with hours of advance notice, TV Martí ended up bungling coverage of the president's remarks.
After an introduction by two Martí anchors, producers struggled with transitioning to a live shot and had to cut back to the studio. After initially broadcasting Obama's words in English, the network scrambled to connect to the simultaneous Spanish translation. Producers' panicked voices often could be heard over the president's. No one was there to run the teleprompter for the hosts. (Although the station did not upload the broadcast to its website, Riptide listened to audio that confirmed the employees' account.)
All in all, the broadcast resembled something more like "high-school television," one employee said, than a multimillion-dollar operation.
And because the station had no plan in place for special coverage, it ended up broadcasting only a 30-minute newscast on the historic announcement later in the day, using primarily coverage purchased from other networks.
"You've known for at least three hours what was going to happen," the employee said. "Where are your guests? Where are your commentators?"
On Thursday and Friday, the station devoted roughly 25 minutes per day to covering the news, remarkably scant coverage for the historic policy announcement.
Compounding the problem Wednesday, employees said, was the absence of the network's director, who was in Washington for State Department meetings. In addition, years of cushy, unscrutinized hirings, said another employee, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, had left the network with ineffectual, bureaucratic leadership and little accountability.
"You've got a lot of people in management who don't do anything at all, ever," the employee said. "And you see that they don't know what they're doing when something like this comes out."
"All these people," the other employee added, "are making way too much money to be just twiddling their thumbs.
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For many of the network's dedicated employees, the whole affair has been painful.
"What are we doing?" one said. "What is the whole point of TV Martí when you get caught with your pants completely down when there's some major [news]?"